Six, seven, eight times. Valen counted each time Ubertee circled her shrine. His face warmed witnessing her movements. A gracious creature, the size of a bear cub and full of life. She pranced on her slender paws and wagged her fluffy tail in the air. She seemed out of place amongst the decaying earth Runihara left behind. The Land God brushed her antlers against the shrine’s base and took a bite of the treats she was given before prancing around again. A laugh bounced in Valen’s stomach as he tried to stay quiet.
“She’s thanking you,” Runihara stated.
Valen took a proud breath and nodded. “Her shrine was neglected for so long.”
“Humans lose interest easily.”
Of all people, Valen understood that sentiment. Humans were fickle and some were never satisfied, no matter how much they gained.
“Soon the earth will heal and Ubertee will lay her blessings.”
Climbing from the cliff he sat on, Valen dusted off his clothes. He followed Runihara down the hill. The god had laid his hands atop the oldest tree outside the shrine and Valen endured a quake of sadness take him over, watching the beautiful tree crumble and branches crash. In a single touch, something very alive fell away beneath the God of Destruction’s power. Behind them lay nothing but clean shrines, dried earth, and decayed plant life. Valen wrapped his hands around himself and gave a firm squeeze. A chill skittered through the blood in his veins.
The mountain was vast, a home to countless villages and thousands of people. It had been Valen’s home his entire life and yet he’d never been anywhere but his village. It would take his father months to travel to and from Lus by horse. Valen was on foot, and their pace was as if time didn’t exist. Gods seemed carefree.
And in the time together, several sunrises and sunsets, Valen did nothing. All the suffering at the hands of Runihara’s presence, Valen felt hopeless. He could do nothing. A maid to wipe shrines and a pet that follows at the click of his master’s heels.
Rubbing at his arms, Valen lifted his head and took a breath. “Do gods have a set path they follow?” Runihara stopped and turned his head towards Valen. His gaze was intense, focused, Valen’s eyes unable to look away. A chill ran down his back and rested in knots in his stomach.
“A set path?”
“W-well, we are traveling by foot,” Valen blurted. “It is already a long journey down the mountain but we aren’t exactly traveling down either. I just…” He wanted to leave Imdar. Tremors spread through his chest. It was unclear his purpose anymore. He rubbed harder on his arm, trying to catch a moment of ease. The weight of that silent stare tore his resolve to pieces.
“No.” Valen’s eyes snapped to Runihara, his gaze no longer lingered on the trembling young man. Instead, they followed the skyline, left, right. “But I said I would put you to use. Pimquel’s shrine is within a day’s walk. From there, we will travel towards Osa, near Lake Demonst.”
Osa was a farm village. They raised chickens and grew a sweet, round fruit Valen had tasted once after his father’s normal trips. It was thick, juicy on the inside, one of the best things he’d ever eaten.
“First,” Runihara said, breaking through Valen’s thoughts. The god moved towards the tree-line off the path. Valen’s eyes followed.
To be abandoned was a typical state of existence in the natural world. Mothers and fathers often left their young for one reason or another. A deformity was one of many. With a breath cinched in his chest, Valen watched Runihara kneel before a fawn with a backward leg. Each slow breath it took shook its entire body. The pitiful critter’s tongue dangled in the dirt, lifeless eyes staring at nothing. Rib bones were visible and skin clung to the sharp shapes of its hips. Life was a passing ache that idled. Death was a procrastination.
Runihara whispered to the fawn, his fingers brushing past the swollen eyes and down its neck. Dull, dark green crawled out from the skin and swallowed the white spots and brown fur. Blisters grew large and burst and parts of the flesh turned to ash and vanished.
Another chill jolted up Valen’s back. It hurt, his muscles tightening. He touched his cheek and then his lips. Such a force that could turn trees to rot and living creatures to stiff bodies, the God of Destruction was terrifying. Valen was sure he would die until his eyes fell on Runihara’s quiet form as he leaned over the dead fawn, unmoving. A sharp pain squirmed in his chest.
Whenever Valen could muster enough courage to look at the god, sorrow filled him. Staring at him, the god often seemed disinterested and cold. In rare moments like these, Valen was sure he could see another side of the god. A softer, lonelier side. But which was the real Runihara, Valen wondered.
“L-Lord Runihara?” Valen spoke before he could think. His hands cupped over his mouth. They had begun to shiver and sweat.
The god glanced over his shoulder and stood. He walked past Valen with little more than a brush of his dark robes. “As’ad Iqbal River is on the way. Come.”
The air in Valen’s lungs finally escaped and his hands relaxed at his sides.
The sun had set to the west of Imdar and the air grew cooler. A breeze wrestled with the heavy leaves and shook branches. Valen fought to pull damp strands from his face as he rested against the bank of the river. He wiped away the dirt of his travels and rinsed his face in his hands at least a dozen times. It felt glorious. How long he had gone without a bath was only as long as he’d been following Runihara, but before that Valen couldn’t remember a time. He had grown like many poor kids with limited chances to stay clean, but a cursed orphan wasn’t welcome even among the already unwanted. The thought brought pain to his sore shoulders. His back and legs were tender.
Putting his feet in the river, at first it stung with the cool temperature. The water rushed into the tears on his feet and burned. Now his feet were a dull ache, a warm sensation still clinging to the flesh where Runihara had touched them. Valen blushed. The god had sat him atop a log and examined his feet closely, cursing about a human’s weak flesh then removed the debris stuck to each foot and pushed him towards the river to bathe. Flustered, Valen’s heart was racing.
“I don’t understand,” Valen mused to himself. He rested his head against the grass and sunk further into the river. “What am I doing? Does cleaning shrines and following a god on his scenic tour truly save the village? Wasn’t my body meant to be eaten?” He buried his face in his hands and blew air into the water.
“Humans create their own suffering.” Runihara’s voice broke the gurgling of Valen’s uncertainties. He shot up straight and turned towards the river bank. There was a cold draft that rushed over his core. Runihara stepped forward and wrapped a large, soft violet cloth around Valen’s body and pulled him from the river. “Your body isn’t worth the suffering of a single village.”
Valen’s body filled with contradictions. His form shuddered at the warm breath of a god’s deep voice against his ear. His heart grew heavy at each word. His wasn’t a worth that could save any one, he knew that. Everything he could want or hope to say choked in his throat. He swallowed the lump and studied Runihara’s back. It was getting easier to imagine that image with his eyes closed, the misery absorbing into his blood.
“I have set clothes here for you. I burned the trash they sent you in.”
Possession. Valen’s heart pounded against his insides. Control. Which side of the coin did this gift fall from? What was Valen’s purpose anymore? He reached, fingers fidgeting, for the clothes.
“Any hope for the village rests with Ubertee,” Runihara indicated. “I have done what I came to do.”
Valen, dressed in clean white robes, a loose violet coat, and new sandals, followed Runihara back to a small fire. He rested the wide-brimmed hat by a tree and took in the space.
“We are camping here,” Valen voiced. “It is warm.” He put his hands to the fire and rubbed them together.
Shoving a white cloth sack into Valen’s view, Runihara looked him up and down. “Eat.”
“You are clean. How they sent you out without decent cover for your feet- We will rest here and leave at first light.” Valen watched the god cross his arms and lean back, closing his eyes. “Do not run off, Valen. You’ll be eaten… by something.”
The words rose in Valen’s throat and sunk to the pit of his bowels in a gust of fire. He shook his head, hoping to cool the temperature of his cheeks, stuffing food in his mouth. In the near silent night, just above the crackling of burning wood, Valen heard Runihara laugh. It was warm, hotter than the fire at his feet.